It’s scary out there. Americans worry that the government can’t stop terrorists where we live. Security checkpoints multiply at workplaces, and in theaters and stadiums and other places where we go to relax. Schools close over hoaxes that used to be ignored. Some days, the world seems consumed by conflict.
People in authority say the right response is to carry on, live your life. That takes a certain courage, which can be a tough thing to summon when you’re on edge. But all around us, people show their courage in the quietest of ways.
This Christmas, we profile four people who fell into life’s traps — they were desperate for money, hungry for freedom, smothered by grief, trapped by disease. And then, somehow, they found their strength. They summoned their courage.
The first time they confiscated his shoelaces, Major Shabazz was 9 years old. He can still remember staring at the graffiti on the jail cell’s walls, thinking about how if he ever wrote on the walls at home, his mother would kill him.
He squinted at the shapes of some green letters, but he couldn’t sound out the words.
IF . . . A . . . MAN . . .
Nine years old, and he knew how to fight but not how to read.
Fourteen years old, and Major couldn’t write on his mother’s walls, because a social worker took him away from her.
Fourteen, and he ran back to Lincoln Heights in Northeast as soon as he could, but his mother’s leather couches were on the curb, and the neighbors were walking away with his old bed frame. He found a picture of his family at the bottom of the pile, on the sidewalk.
Fourteen — alone, angry, desperate.
Fifteen, and he got the nickname The Stickup Kid.
Fifteen, and he was in love with a girl who drew her phone number in the palm of his hand.
Fifteen, and he was stealing cars, for the money, for the thrill, to get something to eat.
Sixteen, and in a cell again. Armed robbery, stolen vehicle, destruction of property, fleeing law enforcement, tried as an adult and sent to federal prison.
Seventeen, 18, 19.
Twenty, 21, 22, 23, and he was handcuffed to a bed when he saw the familiar shape of those words, this time scratched in pencil. But now, he could read:
IF A MAN HASN’T DISCOVERED ANYTHING WORTH DYING FOR, THEN HE ISN’T FIT TO LIVE.
Twenty-four, and on the day he is released, he goes straight to the person worth dying for. Major’s name is tattooed on her arm, but now she has a 5-year-old son.
Soon they need a place to stay and dinner to eat and “PAW Patrol” action figures for Christmas morning. Major moves into ex-offender training programs and GED classes. He lands a few odd jobs, but no money that lasts.
Twenty-four, and he gets that old look in his eye. It would be so easy, so comfortable, to go back to what he knows.
The scarier path is staying out of trouble. How hard will it be? What sacrifices will it take? To turn 25, 26, 27 and still be FIT TO LIVE?
Twenty-four, and he’s willing to find out.
She moved as if she were invisible through woods and swamp, traveling hundreds of miles from the South to the North and back again, carrying faith and a pistol, warning the enslaved people she freed that she would shoot anyone who tried to turn back.
Harriet Tubman figured that “there was one of two things I had a right to — liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other. For no man should take me alive.”
Historic markers tracing her nighttime journeys to freedom still line winding highways on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where officials have dedicated landscapes and waterways as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Historic National Park.
It is here, to the land Tubman knew so well, that men and women are still drawn — pulled by some invisible current of history. They stop at the roadside markers and wonder how Tubman succeeded. Along the shoulder, they exchange stories of amazement at Tubman’s tactics, her brilliance at avoiding capture, her stealth on those return trips she made, often dressed like a man.
“The slave catchers did not realize it was a woman helping people to escape,” said William Jarmon, a volunteer at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center. “She didn’t want to be recognized by the local people. She told the story of how once she saw her old master. He was walking on the same side of the street and he did not recognize her.”
Jarmon said Tubman “had the courage to seek freedom, when running away could mean death. She had the courage to return dozens of times for family members and other slaves, guided by the North Star, following the Underground Railroad.”
Born circa 1822 in Dorchester County, Md., Tubman was named Araminta Ross. She was enslaved by Edward Broadess, who hired out slaves to help pay his debts. When she was about 13, an overseer aiming for another slave threw a two-pound lead weight, hitting Araminta in the head, splitting her skull.
“She was unconscious two or three days,” Jarmon said. Her owner tried to sell her as damaged property but couldn’t. When she was 26, he tried again. She pleaded with God to kill him. A week later, the slaveowner died.
In 1849, Tubman escaped with her brothers from Poplar Neck Plantation, but Ben and Henry turned back. Harriet traveled 90 miles to Pennsylvania. A year later, she came back to Maryland to free her niece and the niece’s husband. In 1851, Tubman returned for her own husband, but he had taken another wife.
“In 1854, Christmastime, she came back for her brothers,” Jarmon said. “In 1857, she came back for her mother and father and went all the way to Canada with them. It was not safe for any runaway to stay in the United States.”
Relentless, she returned for more. To let slaves know she was coming, she sang, “Come down, Moses.” People called her the Moses of her people.
“I freed a thousand slaves,” she once said. “I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
You can tell a lot about a man by what he carries in his wallet.
Robert Fuller-Bey’s is fatter than most. Not with money, but with driver’s licenses. They all show a black-haired woman with delicate features. There’s the one she got in 1990. Another from when she lived on 59th Street SE. And finally, there’s the one Corneliaus Denise, Fuller-Bey’s wife, had when she died of breast cancer, in his arms, on Feb. 16, 2012.
In the months after she died, the grief counselors told Fuller-Bey to stop carrying the licenses. It wasn’t helping him move on, they said. They told him he had to find a new way to live. He was a young man, not even 60. He had years, still — good years.
But those pictures stayed in his wallet, even as he fell behind on bills, even as he failed to pay the $4,961.25 he owed to his apartment complex. Even as Fuller-Bey, a welder, refused to look for work and slipped into homelessness. Even as he lost touch with his kids and wandered the streets of the District, looking for his dead wife’s face in the crowds. The pictures stayed.
Grief can snuff out the will to endure. Psychologists have a name for it — the “widowhood effect.” Surviving spouses, Harvard researchers found in 2013, are 66 percent more likely to die in the first three months following their loved one’s death. That, more or less, was Fuller-Bey’s plan.
But the days somehow dragged into weeks, weeks into months, and Fuller-Bey kept living. Then one morning in March, he said, he walked into Thrive DC, a soup kitchen on Newton Street NW, for breakfast. He’s not exactly sure why, but that morning, he felt a surge of strength.
“I couldn’t believe I was part of this community . . . and I didn’t realize it,” he said.
The weight of his wife’s death began to subside. He realized he hadn’t spoken to his children in two years. Or worked a job. He didn’t want to live on the streets any longer.
One thing led to another, and a Thrive case manager landed him a cooking job at Kangaroo Boxing Club in Columbia Heights. Last week was his first full one on the job.
He now sees his kids often, and he hopes to soon have a place of his own. But no matter where he goes, he said, the pictures of his wife are coming, too.
The Chemotherapy Room at George Washington University Hospital looks like an odd beauty salon. It’s a big space lined with 17 vinyl easy chairs. On a recent morning, most are filled with patients in street clothes, reading magazines, tapping on phones, dozing as the IV bags drip, drip, drip into plastic ports implanted in their chests. Some must be here every day for months on end. Some sit for as long as five hours at a stretch, wheeling their hanging bags only to the bathroom and back.
There are curtains around the chairs, but no one has closed them. There’s a community feel in the chemo room, a lot of frank talk about cancer, insurance companies and good take-out options nearby. Dan Arndt loves the cheeseburgers from Burger Tap & Shake. “Let’s split one,” he says as his wife, Pat, slips on her coat. She comes to chemo with him every time, month after month. “You know how big they are,” he says.
If the chemo room were a bar, Arndt would be the beloved regular. To nurses, doctors and patients, he is a familiar soul, and a cheery one. He chats with nurse Meg about her upcoming vacation and with Mathilde about her bad ride on the Orange Line this morning. When a teary woman in a head scarf hits the gong hanging over the nurses’ station to mark the end of her five grueling weeks of chemotherapy, Arndt shouts a jolly “Way to go!”
He doesn’t expect to ever hit the gong himself. There’s no reliable cure for the pancreatic cancer that nearly killed him a year ago. But massive doses of Folfirinox have arrested the tumor. So the 66-year-old retired telecom manager is on chemo for life, living whatever time he can wrest from the cancer on an eternal three-week wave. The chemo cocktail hits him with days of fatigue, queasiness and joint pain. When his body slowly rights itself, he crams as much living as he can into the next week and a half: dinner with Pat and friends in Annapolis; trips to visit family in Washington state; and, mostly, walks and playtime with his 14-month-old grandson, Jack.
Then he comes back to the chemo room to do it all again. With a smile.
“I don’t need to be cured; I just need to be alive,” Arndt says. “If I have to live on a cycle of 10 bad days followed by 10 good days, I’ll take it. Gratefully.”
It’s an era of cancer breakthroughs, and Arndt prays for a silver bullet. The drugs leave his hands and feet feeling permanently asleep, making it hard to walk and type and cut garlic. His bad days are bad. But for now, chemo is life, life is chemo, and he doesn’t waste any of his good days wishing it were otherwise.